The Way It Was: Letters and old-time postal lore related

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by John Straka Over centuries of time, humans have communicated across spaces greater than face to face by a variety of different means. Signal fires, smoke signals, lights, lanterns, drums, bells, whistles, flags, signs, symbols, and in more recent times, telegraph, telephone, radio and television have been used. When most people were illiterate, one would go to a scribe, tell him what you wanted to say, and he would write it down. Your message would be sent by messenger or other means to the other person who would go to his or her scribe to have your letter read to them. For centuries, such messages were carried by hand from place to place. In some places, homing pigeons were used. When what we now call "snail mail" was begun, letters would go from one post office to another and people would have to go to their office to get their mail. Home delivery of first class mail is historically a new service. I remember when a post card cost a penny. That included the card itself plus delivery to the addressee. My parents lived about a half mile apart before they were married. They could send a post card to each other in the morning and it would be received the same afternoon. I remember when mail was delivered to our house twice a day and first class letter postage was three cents. I have seen a letter addressed to "third house from the corner" and it was delivered without delay. That's because houses were not yet numbered. It was common for a person to give the mailman a letter and three pennies and he would buy the stamp, stick it on the letter and mail it for his customer. When I was just a boy, we had the same mailman for years and years. He knew every person on his route and they all knew him. One of our local mail carries told me of the time one of his customers got a letter written in English. The lady was Italian, could speak English, but was not able to read English. Her mailman opened the letter and read it to her. Even after people began to have telephones in their homes, letters were less expensive than long-distance phone calls. In some cases the new telephones were a nuisance. If you had a phone in your home, neighbors would give your phone number to their friends and relatives who would call and ask you to relay messages for them. This was especially common for businesses that could not afford to refuse such a request for fear of losing customers. When someone died, and the family wanted to notify relatives, they would send the bad news in a letter edged in black. I'm not sure but I think such envelopes were sold just for that purpose. The black border was about a quarter inch wide. There were cases where someone, especially a close relative, would know their loved one was very sick and they would faint just at the sight of a "letter edged in black." There even was a song with that title. All postal employees knew the meaning of a letter edged in black and such letters were given special handling. I remember when my parents ordered baby chicks that were delivered by mail. They came in cardboard boxes that looked like a modern pizza box, only about twice the size. Newly hatched chicks can live without food or water for about the first two days of their lives. Us kids got a great thrill out of seeing a box full of cute fuzzy little chicks to cuddle and play with. If you think sending chicks by mail is odd, what about mail-order houses? That's right. You could order a house selected from a Sears catalog and it would be delivered by mail. All you had to do was put it together. Everything was included. Nails, hinges, windows, paint, all cut to exact dimensions and marked for easy assembly. During the war, the large volume of mail sent back and forth from homes to soldiers and sailors in the military, was a drain on resources. The government invented V-mail. You would write or type your letter on special lightweight stationery and mail it. The letter would be photographed on microfilm. The film was sent to Europe where the letter was recreated and delivered. I have pleasant memories of playing chess by mail, with opponents in England, Holland and California. That was lots of fun. With the California opponent, it developed from our families meeting on a cruise ship to a friendship that included a vacation visit to my home. I am sure there was far less advertising by mail in my earlier years. Our mailbox was not anywhere large enough to hold all the advertising I get today. It was designed strictly to hold letters. If you are a senior citizen you may remember Mail Pouch tobacco. The advertising included an image of a real mail pouch. I haven't seen a real leather mail pouch in years. Today's carriers ride in a truck and hand carry only a few pieces of mail at a time. They used to carry all their mail in a leather pouch and walk their entire route. Mail has been the subject of some jokes and here are a few I remember from long ago. Mike is writing a letter to his mother. Ike asks why is he writing so slowly. Mike explains that his "Mamma can't read very fast." Did you ever play the game of "Pony Express?" It's a lot like the game of "Post Office" except there is a lot more horsing around. After her husband's surgery the wife sued the surgeon for "unauthorized opening of her male." Now I'm going to email this column to my editor. Editor's note: Readers can email Straka at wenceslas88plus@gmail.com.

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